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Author Jack Finney is best known for his classic science fiction novels The Body Snatchers (1954) and Time and Again (1970). His books are considered well written, often ingenious, and emotionally effective, whether thrilling or nostalgic in nature. In all of his works, but especially those focused on time travel, Finney offers a sense of precise detail and atmospheric power. His ”pod people” from The Body Snatchers have become cultural icons, open to many possible interpretations.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing up in Chicago
Jack Finney was born Walter Braden Finney on October 2, 1911, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Because Finney was an intensely private man, little is known of his personal life. His father died when he was two years old, and he and his mother then moved to Chicago to live with his grandparents. His mother, a homemaker, who was skilled in sewing and woodworking, was remarried to a railroad and telephone worker named Frank Berry. Finney, therefore, grew up in the Chicago of the 1910s and 1920s, a time when gangsters, such as Al Capone, attained notoriety, and the expanding, thriving city also became known as a center for jazz.
Finney received his education at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. At some point after graduating, he moved to New York City, where, in the 1940s, he worked for an advertising agency as a copywriter. Whether he served in the Armed Forces in World War II is unknown.
Begins Writing Suspense Stories
In 1946, after the war ended, Finney began writing suspense short stories. One of these stories, ”The Widow’s Walk” (c. 1946), won an award from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Finney continued to write and publish short stories that had elements of fantasy and science fiction, though he placed them in leading slick magazines like Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, and McCall’s instead of pulp magazines like Amazing Science-Fiction Stories, which specialized in such genres.
Until the end of the 1940s, there was little science fiction published in book form. Novels were usually serialized in the pulps, cheap magazines named for the rough, cheap, pulpy newsprint on which they were printed. The pulps were the major forum for adventure stories of the mystery, detective, Wild West, or sea adventure types. Most mystery and science fiction writers wrote for pulps in a distinctive style, and by the 1940s, pulps were where the leading science fiction writers published. Slick magazines were considered more mainstream, and their stories of this time period were stylistically and thematically superior.
Moves to California
Around 1950, Finney married Marguerite Guest, with whom he had two children, Margie and Kenneth. By 1954, the family was living in Mill Valley, California, where Finney would spend the rest of his life, making his living as a writer working from home. In 1954, he published his first novel, Five Against the House, a story of enterprising college students who plan to rob a Reno, Nevada-based casino. The novel was adapted for a film in 1955.
Publishes The Body Snatchers
Also in 1954, Finney published his next novel, The Body Snatchers. Perhaps his best-known work, the novel was originally serialized in Collier’s. Inspired by the scientific idea that life may have originated in outer space, Finney told the story of alien invaders who emerge from pods and physically duplicate “Earthlings”—residents of a small town in the United States (later revealed to be his own Mill Valley), who are then destroyed. The novel was published in the early days of the cold war between the United States and the communist Soviet Union, and some readers saw an anti-communist message in it. The conformity and consumerism of American society in the 1950s was also seen by some as having relevance for the novel. The novel was adapted for the screen in 1956, 1978, and 1993 as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Finney collaborated on the screenplay for the first version, which is generally considered the best.
However, none of the film versions features the happy ending found in the novel, and Finney himself only earned a total of $15,000 from the films.
Finney continued to produce works regularly in the 1950s and 1960s. He published a play, Telephone Roulette (1956), then a collection of short stories, The Third Level (1957), which focused on the theme of time travel. Returning to novels, he wrote Assault on a Queen (1959), a thriller about a plot to burglarize the luxury ship Queen Mary. Drawing on his own days in advertising, Finney published Good Neighbor Sam in 1963. Both novels were adapted for film in the 1960s.
Time Travel Novels
For Finney’s next two novels, he again returned to the theme of time travel. The protagonist of The Woodrow Wilson Dime (1968) goes to an alternate, parallel world through the use of one of its coins and achieves success there by bringing such things as zippers and musicals. In 1970, Finney published another of his better-known novels, Time and Again. This story focused on a New York City-based advertising illustrator, Simon Morley, who goes back to the 1880s while collaborating on a secret project involving time travel. There, he finds romance.
Finney continued to publish books intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s. Still focused on science fiction themes, Marion’s Wall (1973) details the misadventures that ensue when the ghost of a silent film actress inhabits the body of an introverted woman to probe the likelihood of a revived film career for her. After the unsettling Night People (1977), about two couples performing increasingly risky pranks, Finney published a nonfiction book, Forgotten News: The Crime of the Century, and Other Lost Stories (1983), which recounted long-forgotten events that once drew considerable attention in the nineteenth century. Using old newspapers, Finney found reports on the development of the helicopter, the abandoning of a sinking ship, and the gruesome murder of a doctor.
Writes Sequel to Time and Again
Shortly before his death, Finney published his last original book. Because Time and Again had proved so popular, his agent convinced him to write a sequel, From Time to Time (1995), that focused on Simon Morley traveling through time to try to prevent World War I by saving a diplomat who otherwise would die on the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic. However, From Time to Time was less successful than the original and met with only mixed reviews.
Finney died of pneumonia on November 14, 1995, in Greenbrae, California, at the age of eighty-four.
Works in Literary Context
A writer who focused primarily on science fiction and thriller themes, Finney often looked at the present with a critical eye. A number of his best-known works used time travel—a literal escape from the present—to explore the idea of alienation from his current time and a return to the past or alternate time. While not all his novels and short stories showed nostalgia for the past, the lure of change, as in reincarnation, for example, was also present in some of his books. Even in his crime and suspense fiction, such as Assault on a Queen and The Night People, there is a touch of the sentimentalized past or a jaundiced view of the present that helps to fuel the engine of the plot. As a writer, Finney was influenced by his work in advertising as well as the social and political tensions of post-World War II America. The Body Snatchers, for example, can be interpreted in light of the fear of communism that swept through the United States in the 1950s, the idea being that people could be mysteriously and insidiously taken over by an alien mode of thinking.
Finney believed that in his theme of time travel he showed the past as flawed, though overall, it is presented as offering a cleaner, gentler way to live. For Finney, the breaking apart of time was usually an experience to be treasured. The past was, for him, another country that afforded a more casual pace of life, a time when faces carried less anxiety, more cheerful optimism. For example, Simon Morley in Time and Again returns to the 1880s and finds love. All the short stories in The Third Level feature time travel. In the title tale, a commuter discovers a train that regularly travels from New York City to the more simple year of 1894. However, not all of Finney’s time travel stories moved from the present into the past to find a sense of peace. In ”Such Interesting Neighbors,” a couple moves from the future to present-day California to escape the ominous prevalence of nuclear weapons. In this story, the present is a safer place to live than a seemingly horrible future.
Looking for a Thrill
In a number of Finney’s non-time travel novels, the protagonists are trying to escape the present and add something to their lives by performing a thrilling act. In Five Against the House, for example, the college students at the center of the story are looking for excitement to enhance their dull academic lives. To do so, they create an elaborate plan to rob a casino. Adults take a similar tactic in The Night People. In this novel, two bored couples in San Francisco practice increasingly risky pranks that bedevil the police and amaze fellow Californians. Finney took this idea of a challenging thrill to a new level in Assault on a Queen. This time the protagonists are older thieves and professional adventurers who take on a bigger target: the Queen Mary steamship. To rob this passenger liner, they plan to re-float a sunken World War I U-boat. By taking on such challenges, Finney’s characters emphasize the problematic nature of the present as well.
Works in Critical Context
Finney and his works were never fully embraced by critics. For example, a number of critics found Finney’s time travel fiction to be escapist, too nostalgic, and sentimental. However, many reviewers praised Time and Again in particular. While its sequel, From Time to Time was not as well received, Finney’s classic science fiction novel The Body Snatchers has been lauded and examined since publication as an example of Cold War American literature and an allegory of 1950s life.
Time and Again
Critics and readers alike found Time and Again to be well written. Especially lauded were the exceptional historical details, including photographs, that Finney put in the book. In a New York Times review of the novel, the critic called it ”an inviting and highly readable piece of entertainment,” adding that Finney ”has created a piece of nostalgic suspense that is not without its special poignancy.” Similarly, W.G. Rogers wrote in the New York Times Book Review that with Time and Again, Finney had concocted ”a most ingenious confection of time now and time then.” Rogers concluded that, through the novel, ”you go back to a wonderful world and have a wonderful time doing it.”
From Time to Time
The sequel to Time and Again, From Time to Time, focused on Simon Morley’s efforts to prevent World War I by traveling to the past, met with only mixed reviews from critics. Reviewing the book in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Charles Champlin commented, ”Finney is ingenious in his manipulations of the What Ifs, building to a last ironic comment on the consequences of attempting to rewrite history. But it is the way Finney recaptures the past that gives these novels their uncommon appeal.” However, in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani found the novel less impressive. Kakutani wrote, ”the formulaic nature of From Time to Time makes the readers aware of the novel’s flaws: its labored setup . . . its deliberately meandering storyline . . . its need to ridiculously simplify hugely complex events like a world war and its causes.”
- Seabrook, Jack. Stealing Through Time; On the Writings of Jack Finney. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2006
- Champlin, Charles. Review of From Time to Time. Los Angeles Times Book Review (March 26, 1995): 11.
- Kakutani, Michiko. Review of From Time to Time. New York Times (February 3, 1995): C28.
- Review of Time and Again. New York Times (August 2, 1970).
- Rogers, W. G. Review of Time and Again. New York Times Book Review (July 25, 1970): 24.
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